How is the SAT® Test Structured?

SAT® Test Structure

The SAT® exam will assess your skills through Reading, Writing, and Math exams. The exam questions are based on your high school curriculum, so you should have some experience with the majority of the topics you will face. Because of this, the best way to prepare for the exam is by working hard in school. If you feel prepared for the subject matter but still have some questions about the structure of the SAT exam, you’re not alone.

Quick Facts

  • Your test center will open at 7:45 a.m. Doors close at 8:00 a.m., and your exam will start between 8:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. (once students are seated and checked in). 
  • The order of the exam is as follows: Reading test, Writing test, Math no calculator test, then Math calculator test. 
  • Throughout the exam, you will be given warnings for how much time is left for that section. 
  • There will be a ten-minute break between the Reading test and the Writing test. 
  • There will be a five-minute break between the no calculator section of the Math test and the calculator section of the Math test. 
  • The exam should be over by 12:15 p.m. or 12:45 p.m.

Check out this breakdown of the structures for each section of the SAT test

Reading

Overview
The first section of the SAT test is the Reading exam. You will encounter several passages in this section. Each passage is followed by ten to eleven multiple-choice questions. You will find that some passages come in pairs. These pairs will have questions that discuss relationships, connections, or comparisons between the two authors’ arguments or styles. To do well on the Reading exam, you will not need to have any outside knowledge in regards to the topics discussed in the passages. You will need to be able to find specific information in the text. You will also need to be able to identify implied information.

Structure
You will have sixty-five minutes to complete fifty-two multiple-choice questions. These are types of questions in the Reading test: big picture, inference, words in context, evidence support, little picture, function, author technique, and analogy.
Here is a breakdown of what to expect from each question type:

  • Big picture questions focus on the main ideas in the passage. This question type evaluates your reading comprehension skills across the whole text. 
  • Inference questions assess your ability to interpret implied information. You will need to be able to fill in missing information or use surrounding contexts to define a word. You may also need to make inferences about the author’s opinion. 
  • Words in context questions require your understanding of a definition through the surrounding circumstances. The word’s purpose may vary based on the tone, mood, style, or meaning of the passage.
  • Evidence support questions require that you display clear reasoning for your answer choice. These questions focus on your ability to support your answers through evidence. They also test your ability to assess the evidence used to strengthen the arguments in the passage. 
  • Little picture questions test your reading comprehension on a micro-level. You will be asked to assess the significance of words, phrases, or lines. 
  • Function questions require an understanding of how a word or phrase impacts the passage as a whole. You do not need to define the words or phrases in question. Instead, this question type focuses on the function a word or phrase has. 
  • Author technique questions require an understanding of the author’s motivations. You will need to assess the tone or mood while making judgments or inferences.
  • Analogy questions require you to make connections or comparisons between paired passages or passages and their accompanying graphics. These questions focus on relationships.

There are several topics covered in the Reading test’s passages. You will read one literature passage, one social science passage, two science passages (that may be paired), and one historical document. Some SAT tests will contain two historical documents: these are always paired. Each passage is 500 to 750 words. Some passages are accompanied by a graphic (like a chart or table) that you will need to evaluate to draw connections or identify how it supports the claims made in the text.

When the sixty-five minutes are up, you will have a 10-minute break before starting the SAT Writing exam.

Writing

Overview
The Writing exam follows the Reading exam. The SAT Writing test assesses your skills with grammar rules. You will want to practice your skills with wordiness, word choice, run-on sentences, sentence fragments, pronoun case, pronoun agreement, subject-verb agreement, parallelism, idioms, faulty modifiers, relative pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, verb tense, and verb form. You will have thirty-five minutes to complete forty-four questions.

Structure
The Writing exam will ask you to read a passage and then answer questions. Part of the Writing exam will ask you to identify errors. The other part of the Writing exam will ask you to edit and improve errors. Each question in the Writing test is multiple-choice. Some passages have graphics to provide more information. These are the types of questions on the SAT Writing test: words in context, command of evidence, organization, add/delete, word choice and diction errors, transition questions, sentence fragments and run-ons, wordiness and redundancy, verb tenses and forms, subject-verb agreement, pronoun agreement, pronoun case, parallelism, faulty modifiers, faulty comparisons, relative pronouns.
Here is a breakdown of what to expect from each question type:

  • Words in context questions require your ability to improve the word choice for greater concision or to better match the tone of the passage. You may need to use the surrounding context to decipher what word fits best or select an improvement that matches the tone of the passage. Some words in context questions require you to combine sentences to resolve syntax errors. 
  • Command of evidence questions require you to judge an argument and make improvements regarding the evidence. You may face questions that ask you to improve the introductory evidence, assess possible additions to the argument, or determine how data should be presented in the passage to reflect data presented in a graphic. 
  • Organization questions will require skills in improving the order of sentences or improving the order of paragraphs. 
  • Add/delete questions require that you decide whether a sentence should be added or deleted from the passage. You will also need to identify why the sentence should be removed or added. 
  • Word choice and diction error questions require you to assess words’ meanings based on the surrounding contexts. You will have to pinpoint any errors in word usage (from a specific segment of the text) and select an improvement. These questions assess your skills with words that are used in unconventional ways.
  • Transition questions will ask you to select a transition word to complete a sentence or select a transition sentence or phrase to interlink two paragraphs or ideas. Transition questions are the most common question on the Writing test. 
  • Sentence fragments and run-on questions require skills with sentence structure. You will need to be able to identify a run-on or fragmented sentence and make improvements. 
  • Wordiness and redundancy questions test your skills with concision. You will need to improve complex phrases by editing excessive wording, replacing gerunds with nouns, and replacing pronouns with a verb. You will also need to identify and improve repetitive words or phrases that are not necessary to the meaning. 
  • Verb tense and form questions require you to look at an underlined phrase and improve any verb tense inconsistencies. You will need an understanding of simple past tense, past perfect tense, present perfect tense, conditional tense, future tense, and present tense. You will also need to understand how verbs operate as nouns. 
  • Subject-verb agreement questions require you to identify and improve errors with subject-verb agreement. A singular subject must be tied to a singular verb, and plural subjects can only be tied to plural verbs. 
  • Pronoun agreement questions require you to identify when a pronoun does not match its antecedent and then resolve the error. Sometimes the pronoun and antecedent disagree in number, and sometimes they disagree in person.
  • Pronoun case questions require you to decipher whether a pronoun is being used as a subject or an object. If the subject is used incorrectly as an object, you need to identify the error and fix it. If the object is used as a subject, then you will need to identify the error and fix it as well.
  • Parallelism questions require you to identify and resolve errors in parallel structures. Some parallelism questions test your skills through lists, and some test your skills through phrases. 
  • Faulty modifier questions test your ability to identify and resolve errors with dangling modifiers and misplaced modifiers. You will need to be able to spot when a descriptive phrase is misplaced or detached from the noun it is describing.
  • Faulty comparison questions require you to identify and correct illogical comparisons. To succeed with this question type, remember that you can only compare two things of the same category, and you cannot compare something to everything. 
  • Relative pronouns are words that replace nouns. To do well on these questions, be sure that the pronoun is in agreement with the noun it replaces. You will need to be able to spot errors and make improvements when words like “who,” “whom,” “where,” “when,” “that,” “whose,” “which,” and “where” replace a noun.

The Writing exam assesses your ability to spot and improve grammar errors and weaknesses. You will first read a passage and then answer questions about underlined words, phrases, or sentences. Sentences in question are underlined and tagged with a number to signal their correlating questions. Test questions and passages are organized side by side, so you can easily maneuver back and forth between reading and answering.

Math

Overview
The last section of the SAT exam is the Math test. The Math section of the SAT exam contains questions that allow your calculator and questions that do not allow any devices. Throughout this portion of the SAT test, your skills with linear equations, inequalities, systems of linear equations, linear functions, ratios, percentages, rates, nonlinear expressions, quadratic equations, word problems, and complex functions are examined.

Structure
These topics are covered across four categories of questions: heart of algebra, problem solving and analysis, passport to advanced math, and additional topics.
Here is a breakdown of the types of questions you will encounter on the Math test:

  • Heart of algebra questions assess your skills with linear expressions, equations, inequalities,  and functions. You will be asked to solve or interpret linear equations, inequalities, systems of linear equations, and linear functions. This question type will present you with problems that contain graphs or word problems.
  • Problem-solving and analysis questions assess your skills with quantitative reasoning. You will work with ratios, percentages, rates, and information from graphs and tables. You will be tested on your ability to evaluate the relationships between graphs, tables, and data through equations and probabilities.
  • Passport to advanced math questions will assess your skills with nonlinear expressions, and you will need to display an understanding of the structure of an expression. These questions will ask you to recognize the relationships between graphs and equations. 
  • Additional topics questions focus on assessing your skills with geometry, trigonometry, and complex numbers. Often, additional topic questions are presented as word problems.

You will have twenty-five minutes to answer twenty no calculator questions. You will then have a five-minute break before starting the calculator section. You will have fifty-five minutes to answer thirty-eight calculator questions.

Most Math questions are multiple-choice. Some questions are grid-ins. To answer a grid-in style question, you will need to write in your answer and bubble in the correlating answer. You must handwrite and bubble in for this question format. Grid-in problems occur in the calculator section and the no calculator section of the exam.

How Long Is the SAT® Exam?

The SAT® test day begins at 7:45 a.m. and ends sometime between 12:15 – 12:45 p.m. The entire exam takes 180 minutes (or three hours). During this time, you will check-in, find your assigned seat, take the Reading test, take the Writing test, and take the Math test. Each test has specific timing procedures.

Here is a breakdown of what to expect:

Reading Test 
The first exam is the SAT Reading test. This test contains fifty-two multiple-choice questions. You will be given sixty-five minutes to complete the exam. Once the sixty-five minutes are up, you must stop and put your pencil down. If you finish early, you may not go on to the next section. Your test coordinator will give you a warning when you reach halfway through the sixty-five minutes and another warning when you have five minutes left.

Break
After the Reading test time is up, you will have a ten-minute break. During this break, you may step outside of the testing room (bringing your admission ticket and photo ID with you) and eat a snack. The only time you may eat or drink throughout the exam is during the breaks.

Writing Test 
After the ten-minute break, you will begin the Writing test. This test contains forty-four multiple-choice questions. The SAT Writing test lasts a total of thirty-five minutes. Your test coordinator will give you a warning when you reach halfway through the thirty-five minutes and another warning when you have five minutes left.

Math Test 
After the Writing test, you will begin the Math test. The test starts with the no calculator section, which contains twenty questions and lasts a total of twenty-five minutes. When the twenty-five minutes are up, you will have a five-minute break. The last portion of the SAT exam is the calculator Math test. This section lasts fifty-five minutes and contains thirty-eight questions. The Math test contains multiple-choice questions and student-based response questions called “grid-ins.” These grid-ins require that you handwrite your answer and bubble in the correlating digits. These responses do not have answer choices, and you will need to come up with the correct answer independently. Like the first two tests, you will be given warnings regarding how much time is left.

Dismissal
Your dismissal time varies slightly based on the time that you start. Once the doors close for check-in, the proctor will need to read the instructions and ensure that your bags and cell phones are collected. After the second Math test time is complete, your proctor will collect the test booklets.

If You Are Worried About Running Out of Time:
If you struggle with time management, we have some tips to boost your efficiency.

Start by understanding the scoring process. This is crucial and can have an enormous impact on your test-taking strategies. Your results are based on the number of questions you answer correctly, and each question is worth the same amount of points. If you struggle with time, start with the easiest questions, and save time-consuming problems for the end of the section. This means that you should do your best to answer every question, even if that means making a guess.

You can also save time by practicing the process of elimination. Hone your skills and make a habit of eliminating answers effectively. This strategy minimizes the number of answer options to sift through and will save you some time. Note that choosing between two or three answers is a faster process than choosing between four.

Another strategy for improving your time management is to find your weak points and recognize the questions that slow you down. You can spend extra time in your studies improving your efficiency with the problems that slow you down.

What To Expect When Taking the SAT® Exam

As you prepare for the SAT® exam, you may be wondering about the logistics and details to expect on test day. Here is a breakdown of the information you need to know about your test center, test schedule, permitted breaks, and devices.

Registration

When planning to take the SAT test, it is crucial to start planning early. This way, you can have ample time to study and prepare for the exam. You will need a College Board® account to sign up for the SAT test.

Be sure that the information that you use to register is the same information shown on your photo ID. After registering, you will need to print the admission ticket.

Test Center
When you arrive on test day, you will need to be prepared with your photo ID, admission ticket, two number two pencils, and a calculator that is approved by the College Board. It is a good idea to wear a watch to keep track of time (though your test proctor will give you reminders throughout the exam of how much time is left) and bring a snack for your permitted breaks.

The doors for check-in are open from 7:45 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. Check your admission ticket to confirm that your testing location opens at these regular times. If you arrive after the doors are closed you will need to reschedule your SAT test.

The SAT test will begin once everyone has been seated in their assigned seat. Expect that the proctor will read scripted instructions about the rules and layout of the test. You will be told when to start and stop each section of the test.

Note that you may only work in the section your proctor has designated for that time slot. If you work ahead or go back to a previous section, your score may be canceled.

Test Schedule
The SAT test begins with the Reading exam. This test lasts sixty-five minutes and consists of fifty-two multiple-choice questions. After the Reading test, you will have a ten-minute break before starting the Writing test. The Writing test lasts thirty-five minutes and consists of forty-four questions. The last section of the SAT test is the Math exam. This test is made up of two sections: the no-calculator section and the calculator section. The no-calculator section lasts twenty-five minutes and consists of twenty questions.

You will have a five-minute break before starting the calculator section. The calculator section lasts fifty-five minutes and consists of thirty-eight questions.

Breaks
You will have two breaks during the SAT test. The first break lasts ten minutes and is given between the Reading and Writing test. The second break lasts five minutes, and it is given between the no-calculator Math test and the calculator Math test. The only time you may eat or drink is during these two breaks.

You should know that you may not use your cell phone during any of the breaks. If you leave the room during this time, be sure that you keep your photo ID and admissions ticket with you.

Calculators
The only device that is permitted during the exam is a calculator. You can find out if your calculator is approved by the College Board through the College Board website. You must bring your own calculator, and it is a good idea to get some practice with the modes and buttons to avoid wasting time on test day.

Get familiar with your calculator to ensure that you make the most of your time. Be sure that your calculator batteries are full. You may not use your cell phone as a calculator.

Knowing what to expect for the testing center and testing process is a key part of your preparation. Now that you know what to expect from the SAT test day, you can do your best to replicate the conditions by timing yourself and using only the permitted devices during your practice.

These steps will ensure that your study habits provide practice that is realistic. Realistic practice tests are the best way to prepare for the official SAT test. You can find many practice exams through UWorld’s SAT online learning tool. This prep resource contains detailed question explanations and performance tracking tools that will provide you with data and strategies for test day. You can also find out more about your weak points through these resources. Try it out to gain confidence and boost your scores!

To gain experience with the structure of the SAT exam, it is a good idea to take practice tests. You can find practice tests, detailed question explanations, and performance tracking tools that will provide you with experience for test day using UWorld’s SAT Prep Course. You can also find out more about your weak points through these resources.

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